Friday, January 30, 2009

Trotting With Scissors or Submissions, Day Five

5 PM Deadline!

Trotting With Scissors

Caution was a valued rule of thumb growing up in my house.

My newscaster father had a not-so-subtle method of instilling the ‘think twice’ maxim. “Girls,” he’d begin somberly when my sister and I sought permission to do some seemingly routine activity like say, make toast. “I know it seems that there isn’t much that can go wrong making toast, but I’m sure that’s exactly what Bill Doe thought last week when he went to the corner market to pick up a loaf of bread.”

We’d listen in grave silence as dad recounted Bill Doe’s sad fate, typically a mugging, decapitation or comparable act of wanton violence. We responded with the dichotomy of emotions that is trademark adolescence—first we’d scoff, then wonder: what if he’s right? What if the world really is a place of limitless danger and senseless violence?

My mother, the embodiment of goodness, is also cautious by nature. Some things, particularly anything involving unmentionables (we know them as underwear) are just too provocative to discuss. On a grocery store trip in the late seventies when pantyhose were still packaged in those irresistible oversized Easter eggs, I asked hopefully if they were on the grocery list, and, by the way, what color if they were?

“Shhh…we’ll talk about this in the car,” my mother said nervously. No plastic egg found its way into the cart, but I’d obviously hit on something. Curiosity mounted.

“Nude,” my mother explained later in hushed tones. “Unfortunately, they’ve named the color of my hose nude. So unpleasant, why if anyone in the grocery store had overheard us using that word! Who knows what they might have thought?”

In defense of my parents, I was certainly not known for caution.

In fourth grade, I was so careless with one of my unmentionable garments that it wound up in a lost and found box. A pair of seniors carried the box from classroom to classroom on a show and tell mission designed to eradicate the eyesore of said box from the hallway. My unmentionable, a full slip, was held aloft and gleefully received for its full entertainment value. Several boys even modeled it for the class. I’m sure you’ll be as shocked as I was to learn that my mother wondered aloud why I didn’t claim it. She actually made me go back and ask for it, but I think I was instructed to ask female PE coach for help because my teacher was a man.

My childhood was consistently punctuated by events that invariably shocked my mother and decreased the hairs on my father’s balding head. When local citizens (read: my father and the neighbor on our party line) reported sketchy bobcat sightings, I spent the better part of a week blazing deep woods trails with the neighbor boys, Lee and Keith, on an expedition of National Geographic proportions. Home play wasn’t any safer. In hot pursuit of a wayward marble, I got my head stuck between the banisters requiring the concentrated efforts of both parental units to extricate me. The marble was never found.

When I was thirteen, I pestered relentlessly for permission to take a solo trip to do charity work with street people in an inner city Chicago subdivision known as Cabrini Green. I gathered that it must be a pretty rough place, because when my parents would relate this story to other family members, the response was an invariable: “What? You’re kidding! Cabrini Green? You’re not letting her do this, are you?” You and I both know I never learned from personal experience what evils dwell in this apparent blot on the good name of our country. I wasn’t allowed to go.

I went to college briefly in Philadelphia and didn’t sleep for several months. Instead, I wandered aimlessly through the city during periods of time my parents referred to as “all hours.” I was, indeed, out all of the hours at one point or another, I’m quite sure. A friendly policeman once asked me, very nicely, to return to my dorm after I wandered into the projects at three a.m. He said I might be a lot safer. At the dorm, I’d stargaze at two a.m. while lying in the middle of the road with my Adventure Friend, a wild boy we called Block.

In my twenties, I became a mother and suddenly I feared everything. I struggled between my desire to embrace the world and my fear of it. There were so many things that could go wrong. Just look at the newspaper! It’s a mixed bag of horror out there. Accidents, cancer, poverty, crime, even bread muggings. There’s no end to the combinations of potential disaster that could be lurking under the surface of so called normal living.

I fear less now, in my thirties—partly because I got bored of it, but also because some of the things I feared have already happened. Amazingly, none of them were gruesome enough for me to wind up in the newspaper. Especially not in my unmentionables.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ripped From My Resume: The Making of a Snake Handler or Submissions, Day Four

We're dipping into the archives this week in search of material to submit to a contest with a 5 PM Friday deadline. Comments appreciated!

Ripped From My Resume: The Making of a Snake Handler

A couple years back, I volunteered to serve as a snake handler for my city’s public library program. Although this was just a one-time gig, not ongoing employment, it is noteworthy on my life resume none the less.

Snakes were pretty high on my childhood list of dreaded creepy crawlies. I grew up in the country, where sightings were common and the Snake Scream—a very specific ululation, uniform in pitch and intensity, would summon one of two sources of help. By day, such shrieks would bring Lee, the neighbor boy. At his discretion, the vermin would be either housed or tortured. If the sighting and resultant scream occurred in the evening, my father would come running with the shovel.

Mulling over a Sunday School lesson one afternoon, I was thrilled when the Biblical basis of snake loathing hit me. Cursed eternally, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden was put on notice that his kind would forever have difficulty with women. My childhood was a swift and just payday for the entire species.

Not under Biblical mandate, little boys’ fears seem to manifest themselves in a different form. Most of the little boys I know live in a constant state of combat with a seedy cast of Bad Guys. At any given moment my 8-year-old son could be engaged in battle with Onion-Onion Early Head -- a car crunching vegetable that debuted in a nightmare-- or Bubkis, a shady villain of whom we can’t extract much in the way of concrete information.

Real or imaginary, creepy crawlies embody our childhood fears, eliciting bloodcurdling screams, sweats, and other sundry manifestations of the fight or flight adrenaline rush of Psychology 101 fame. Watching my mom didn’t give me much hope for the future, either. I vividly recall a laundry room battle with a Big, Furry Spider in which my mother engaged during the summer of ’77. The struggle left her so emotionally drained she had to lie down for a large portion of the afternoon.

Indeed, my fear of creepy crawlies followed me to college. One afternoon, I was run out of my dorm by a particularly menacing red spider. I arrived, shaken, at the door of a friend on a higher floor. “D-d--don’t—need-- much space,” I gasped. Really. I was confident that I could pare things down to just a sleeping bag and little pile of essential texts. Any corner would do. Before I had a chance to compile and submit official room change request forms, my roommate came to visit me. She delivered a triumphant account of the relentless stalking and subsequent death of the menacing red spider. Would I please come home?

I wasn’t brave enough or, as it turned out, smart enough, to demand to see the carcass. Months later, when I was moving out of the dorm for real, Jill confessed that she’d never seen the red spider again, let alone killed it. She missed me. She knew I’d never come back as long as the spider was still at large. I was sufficiently touched, and didn’t hold it against her. I did, however, pay special attention when I unpacked at my new destination.

Perhaps in part because the killing was a hoax, any non-cuddly creature with a suspect number of legs or an ancestral history tainted by the Bubonic Plague still wielded power. I left the dorm to live in the insect infested state of Texas with my new husband, Brad. Texas roaches are big enough to eat The Big Furry of 77, all my childhood snakes, and the menacing red spider for dinner. They swarmed and festered on the sidewalks that surrounded our apartment building. Coming and going at night, I’d hold my breath and walk as if wearing blinders. I took comfort in the thought that our apartment was too clean to invite such a dreadful creature.

But, alas, these predators invade without invitation, as I discovered to my horror one evening as I lifted a cast iron skillet and revealed the great grand daddy of all the Big Roaches. I am quite sure he was Guinness book large, but who’s measuring at a time like this anyway? I did what any sensible woman would. I violently threw that cast iron skillet and screamed the snake scream.

Brad, sadly, was unfamiliar with the signal. Confused, as new husbands often are, he didn’t know whether to comfort me or kill the vermin. In the confusion, the roach got away, and things went downhill from there.

Unnerved and drenched in sweat, I wouldn’t stay alone in the apartment—for a week. This meant I had to go to my day job as well as Brad’s night job with the eleven o’clock news team. It was a tiring schedule, and, eventually, I had to give it up. Subsequent roach sightings were less dramatic. I became more like my mother, who, in ’84, was forced to single-handedly exterminate a mole from my bedroom. I don’t even think she had to lie down.

Bugs and bad guys, I think, stay with us until we’ve learned what we can from them. They’re our friends actually, appearing every so often to give us the opportunity to be brave and to conquer. Each sighting offers the possibility of a small victory to savor, until, eventually, we’ve outgrown our bad guys and they’ve empowered us.

I like to think, then, that my multi-legged victims were finally avenged the day I met Penelope. Six-feet in length and likely twice that in girth, the python requires the assistance of ten brave volunteers to greet children during her annual visits to the public library. I’m proud to report that I was the first to volunteer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Brain Tumors and Other Boogiemen or Submissions, Day Three

We're dipping into the archives this week in search of material to submit to a contest with a 5 PM Friday deadline. Comments appreciated!

Brain Tumors and Other Boogiemen

“I have a brain tumor,” I confided to my friend as we arranged our dinner selections on our plates.

“So do I,” she said. We carried our plates to our chairs and sat down. “In fact, Peter really doesn’t like it when I get on the Internet anymore.” Kathy lowered her voice as her husband came within earshot.

“Brad feels the same,” I nodded, knowingly, thinking of all the medical sites my husband would love to block.

The conversation wasn’t really headed the direction I expected. I had no idea Kathy had a brain tumor, and she stole my thunder. No sign of concern, no follow-up questions, my tumor obviously wasn’t being taken seriously. This wasn’t the same, intermittent brain tumor that’s been known to flare up since grade school. This time, the world wide web was solidly backing my hypochondria.

I had realized earlier in the day that the fact that my right ear had been blocked for several years might be a problem. Once, I had a doctor check for wax, but none found, I accepted it as a one of life’s little quirks and forgot about it. Every now and then (although web research now indicates this was a mistake) I’d shove a q-tip as deep as I dared and wiggle it around a bit, or while showering, press my palm over top of my ear to create a bit of plunging action, but that was about it.

I attempted to explain to my husband and the ENT I later consulted why, after all these years, I had chosen now to investigate the problem. The truth, if you must know, is that I blame it on The Auto Mall, a mechanical group who has, at the time of this writing, taken over twelve weeks to perform a standard repair on my jeep. I no longer care, as I have long since given up hope that they can complete this maintenance before my young children graduate. The fate of the jeep is now left for the courts to determine and I wanted a new car anyway. But this was in the early days of the problem, when my husband still had to take the children and I to and from school in shifts in his two-seater pick up. I was subsequently left on the front step of the school building with absolutely nothing to do but think.

Now, I realize that I could have used the time to think about anything. The world was my palette. I had characters in works of fiction that I’d abandoned in grave peril weeks earlier. There was the stimulating article I’d read about the Irish potato famine. Doubtless, I had no dinner plans. But, no, none of those topics crossed my mind as I sat on the steps and wondered: Why is my ear is plugged?

As with all things I wonder, I decided to consult the Internet when I got home. The results were alarming.

A well-documented symptom, “fullness of the ear” could signal any of a widely varied range of dysfunction, some of which, I read with fascinated horror, had nothing to do with the ear at all. Fullness of the ear was obviously an overlooked malady. All these years I thought I was living in relative health, I actually had the dreaded fullness of the ear, harbinger of disorders ranging from ear wax and chronic infection on the tame end, capping off with MS, brain, and nasal tumors on the other.

“The symptoms you report are pretty common,” the ENT told me, just before I asked about two specific and especially insidious tumors I’d read about. Seeing no evidence of either, he quickly sapped me of any relief I was tempted to feel.

“Who knows? Could be a tumor, cancer, or worse. Could be absolutely anything or nothing at all. People worry about all kinds of things.” He gave me an order for a CT and a hearing test, and sent me on my way.

Worse than brain cancer? No web page anywhere had mentioned possibilities that could stack up against such a prognosis. This was exactly the kind of situation I feared: an ongoing investigation in search of unknown and potentially terrifying horrors.

Without a doubt, I’d end up like the faceless patients I’d read about in a recent newspaper article on new advancements in facial reconstruction. I would be hideous, if I even lived, and would I want to, anyway? My husband, the poor man, isn’t a lot of help at times like this. Having seen me through other tumors, gynecological uncertainties, and numerous suspicious moles, he’s become a bit hardened to medical drama.

“Your symptoms aren’t any different from the 20,000 other patients he’s seen,” said Brad, resorting to factual statistics to back up his unnerving calm. “How many people have you seen walking around Hampton without a face?” my husband demanded.

“Maybe one,” I said, determined not to lose ground. There was the facial reconstruction article. Truthfully, I didn’t know where the woman featured in the piece actually lived, but she was in my local paper and that was certainly good enough for the purposes of this argument.

“One?” my husband raised his eyebrows in challenge. “And the newspaper doesn’t count.”

Transactional Analysis, I remembered from my undergraduate psychology studies, purports the idea that we all live by a set of life scripts, or predetermined ways of responding to life events. TA- based therapy focuses on examining the predictable patterns, the scripts, by which we live by and changing or erasing those that are destructive or that we’ve outgrown.

As the author of scripts, director of productions, and small time actor, the concept of living by a psychological script intrigues me. On one hand, I don’t like the idea that I might interact with the world according to a limited range of predetermined responses. On the other hand, I am the author of the script, so the responses are mine.

There’s a very Dark Place I go when confronted with any type of medical uncertainty. After leaving the ENT, the Dark Place beckoned as if on cue.

In the Dark Place, I shuffle around listlessly. With a host of disfiguring treatments and the grim reaper looming, clearly, there was no point in working on my novel. Ditto for working out. Instead, I wonder if Brad and the kids will decorate for Christmas, and if they know the recipe for pasta fagoli. I burst into tears at the mere sight of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I’m certain I can’t hold on for enough family readings to see Frodo through to Mordor.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Images of the Dark Place don’t quickly fade and I don’t want to burden you with them. But somehow, this particular trip took an unexpected turn. A voice of reason—my husband will tell you it was his—somehow made a Hollywood-style plunge through the thick blanket of cloud that enveloped me. All it said was “you don’t have to behave this way.”

“Duh,” I answered the voice (it really was my husband.) Even as I scoffed, though, I understood for the first time that the Dark Place is nothing but a setting I’ve scripted for myself in which to worry and brood.

More importantly, in a flood of realization, I knew why I went there.

In one of those flip-of-the-switch discoveries, I knew it was the promise of euphoria drives me to the Dark Place. I totally get off on the moment when the whole tawdry affair is laid to rest by whatever negative x-ray, lab result or simple a reassuring office visit the situation requires.

I’d get the good news and realize that I was going to live. After which the sky would seem bluer, the air would smell cleaner and life’s little trials would roll off my shoulders with ease. After all, I just last week I was dying. Reveling in life, I called it. It was a tremendous high that can only be achieved by going very, very low.

Kathy’s response made me realize that we all have brain tumors. Some of us even refer to them as such. Other people have different names for their boogiemen. Fear of failure, fear of commitment, monsters under the bed—we all have something that sends us scurrying into our own personal hell. My “therapy moment” made me realize that growing up is not only about finding better ways to confront our ghouls, it’s discovering why we’re hanging out with them in the first place.

Evidently, I’ve been playing mine for cheap thrills.

Will all my new found wisdom keep me from running to the Internet the next time unusual symptoms crop up? I don’t know—I threw out my script.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Submissions, Day Two

If this is your first tune-in to the blog this week, we’re dipping into the archives in search of material for a writing contest with a 5 PM Friday deadline. Today’s contender is actually a continuation of yesterday’s offering: I thought it only fair to give you the rest of the story, although it would need a new intro to work as a stand-alone piece.

The Second Career of a Breakfast Icon

My 30-year old-stuffed tiger has a new face.

The episode with the vacuum cleaner left me so inspired that I immediately sat down and typed out the previous chapter, shut down the computer and sighed contentedly. Clearly, now, I could put the entire matter behind me and send Tony off to his Happy Hunting Grounds in good conscience. Somewhere between garbage can and closure, however, former CIA agent Robert Barron added the rescue of a famous breakfast icon to his resume.

A newspaper write-up on Barron’s post-CIA career had grabbed my attention the previous week. Already, the piece had secured his status as my new favorite twenty-first century artist, but it was his choice of canvas that became the inspiration behind the biggest comeback in the history of elderly stuffed tigers.

By trade, Barron had been a disguise specialist. Our government paid him to render operatives unrecognizable to anyone in their family, circle of acquaintances, or, if the assignment required, race or gender, either. Accordingly, Barron’s palette consisted of the startlingly lifelike ears, eyes, and noses he expertly crafted. His canvas was the human face.

When he retired, Hollywood came calling, but, like many true artists, Barron isn’t following the money trail. His chosen work is too important.

Today Barron painstakingly rebuilds faces lost to accidents, fire, and cancer. Neither his palette nor his canvas has changed since his CIA days, but his mission has taken a 180. Barron used to work to conceal identities, but now he rescues them. His masterpieces are the salvaged dreams behind the illusions of flesh that he designs.

Art, I tell my students, communicates.

Barron’s work is about loss, but says more about hope. It’s born out of endings, but paves the way for new beginnings. His art is about using your gifts and talents for something a little bigger than yourself. It’s about living the adventure you were put here for, even if it means coming out of retirement to do it. It’s about preserving life and dignity and grace. It’s about resurrecting dreams. It’s about having the courage to confront the dreadful and transform it.

Like all good art it is very, very beautiful. And, for some reason, in the moments after I disposed of Tony, Barron’s work was all I could think about.

I pulled Tony from the trash for the second time in a week, rounded up as much spongy burnt orange stuffing as I could, and carefully matched the jagged edges of his facial tear. I slapped a sturdy piece of clear packing tape across the seam and, viola! Tony’s not only back in the game with his back-alley plastic surgery, he’s got a new gig. Of late, he’s been tooling around town with his head poking out of the top of my writer’s bag as a poster tiger for my latest book project—a cheerful rebuttal to the utter downward spiral Sir Isaac Newton promised us in our grade school science texts.

Tony’s brush with mortality is a reminder that anything at all can survive if you put a new face on it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Of Submissions and a Mission

Welcome to one of my good ideas that showed up just south of Timely. Regular readers know that the path toward my nearly-completed master’s degree has been strewn with so much lost writing time: blog posts that never made it to cyperspace, articles that were never pitched, an entire novel’s worth of characters with fates hanging in the balance—the literary causalities are as numerous as they are grim.

Still, in the midst of the academic frenzy in which I’ve been embroiled, I’ve never forgotten that I’m a writer. And four months from now, I plan to delve deep back into my chosen profession. In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a writer’s conference to get back into the game (and take advantage of free student admission!). Like many good conferences, this one includes a contest. Not having the aforementioned writing time to craft new material especially for the event, I’ve decided to dip into the archives and submit some unreleased material that’s been distilling for a couple years. Which bring me to my slightly tardy idea.

For the rest of the week, I’ll be posting prospective contest entries here on the site—partly because this gives us a week of guaranteed posts, but also because I’d like some feedback about what piece to enter. So what makes me wish I had this otherwise win-win idea two weeks ago? The deadline is 5 PM Friday. So let’s get busy and don’t be shy—let me know what I should submit or just let sit!

Here's our first contender:

A Tiger on a (Suicide) Mission

What is it about stuffed animals? Little more than wadded cotton encased in plush and adorned with thread and buttons, these faux friends find their way onto the guest list of life’s meaningful moments. They show up at baby showers and hospital visits, on Valentine’s Day and at graduations. And they are always welcome. So why the perennial welcome mat for these cloth clones? My husband blames Sesame Street. Spending our formative years in the presence of friendly bath toys, charismatic letters, and well-spoken pieces of home furniture, it’s no wonder our society is predisposed to animate the inanimate.

PBS or not, I am a grown woman with a collection of stuffed animals dating back to the Carter administration. Parting with them would seem too much like betrayal. Yes, I realize that I’m the stuffed-PETA equivalent of those crazed animal hoarders occasionally exposed on the 11:00 news, but I’m also willing to bet there’s trusty plush friend or two in your personal archives.

In general, we’re loyal to our childhood stuffed animals because they’ve always done their job. They share our secrets. When squeezed, they don’t scratch, bite, or offer unsolicited advice. They are for us whatever-- and whenever--we need them to be.

My home, then, became a safe haven for stuffed animals, not unlike a no-kill animal shelter.

At least until my two ill-behaved Labradors assigned themselves the task of tackling the nasty business of the overpopulated stuffed species. It began with some isolated outbreaks, most notably the rabbit winnowing of Y2K. Mocha, the brown one, went on a rampage one morning and bit the faces off every stuffed rabbit in the house. Just rabbits and just faces, executed with frightening precision.

Hippos were targeted next, although more out of fond fascination than menace. As a training gift, my daughter, Allison, had given Mocha his own green hippo, which he apparently adored. He carried it everywhere, including muddy romps. Finally, the hippo was nothing more than a mass of filthy threads and had to be disposed. The next day Mocha went into Allison’s room, plucked a blue hippo from her collection and carried it around with a lone green sock. Time passed without further incident, and we began experimenting with tentative indoor privileges for the dogs when we’d leave for short periods of time.

Then came a Bad Day for elderly tigers.

A box top mail in prize from when I was three, Tony of cereal fame had come out of semi-retirement in my storage loft and had spent the night in the family room. Rain prompted a spur of the moment decision to leave the dogs inside alone while I took the kids to school—a decision I never considered being of consequence to Tony, until I returned to a horrific sight. Tony’s face was split and his innards had been strewn in what I pictured as a gleeful romp.

No doubt our cockatiel, Casey, had squawked in warning: “Dangerous! Dangerous predators!” as he’s prone to do at the sight of canines or wanton destruction. With no one home to hear his pleas, however, the labs put some snap, crackle and pop into their morning and left Tony not looking so g-r-r-r-eat.

Tony spent a week with his tail tentatively sticking out of the wicker trash basket in my bathroom, but when push came to shove on garbage day, I hastily pulled him out and transferred him to a laundry basket. In an effort of be helpful, my husband later dumped a freshly laundered load into the basket. And then another. And, possibly, another. Many days passed.

One morning, on a Bad Writing day, the computer wouldn’t work. Frustrated, but determined to accomplish something, I decided to exercise, but, for want of a hairclip, my workout simply didn’t. So I took a shower only to discover that I couldn’t find a pair of what my saintly mother would call "unmentionables." Even in the triple load basket where Tony, sole witness to my subsequent rantings, lay forgotten at the bottom.

Flinging clothes across the bed, I suddenly hit a pocket of spongy, burnt orange stuffing. Tony stuff began to fly around the room.

“Dangerous! Dangerous!” Casey squawked as I pulled out the vacuum and aimed the hose at airborne bits. Hurriedly, I jammed the hose into the laundry basket in an attempt to stop the spread of Tony bits at the source when: whoosh!--something from the basket shot up the hose and into the canister.

My vacuum gives one the benefit of viewing the captured dirt swirling inside the canister as it accumulates, so I quickly looked to see what had been sucked into the wind tunnel. Amidst the general sea of compressed dust and in stark contrast with the occasional wad of crumpled white tissue were flashes of silky black fabric. Although my mother will be mortified to learn that I’ve found it necessary to mention the unmentionable twice already—there they were, orbiting the eye of what my vacuum’s literature proudly references as the "whirlwind."

I quickly turned off the vacuum and noticed Tony staring up at me from his unseemly state at the bottom of the basket. Disapproval. I definitely saw it on both sides of his split countenance. I suddenly realized how unfortunate it was that Tony, whose only mission in his artificial life was to provide me joy and comfort should come to such a miserable end, insides spewing forth into my laundry and listening to me say things I can’t mortify my mother by writing.

Then I finally understood. Life is too brief to lose sleep over bad writing or not to be outrageously thankful that I even have hair. And what a terrible waste it would be to miss the humor in seeing my unmentionables swirling around in the vacuum canister.

I popped the canister open, shook out the offending fabric and laughed uncontrollably.

Tony’s expression changed. It was admittedly imperceptible, but I caught it. After all, who can crack a half smile better than a tiger with a fissured cranium?

Tony left me on a high note, stoically keeping my secrets, gently exposing my childishness, and reminding me that it was time to grow up.

He did his job well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Parenting, Today

“I’m about to get ornery,” my daughter announced gleefully, popping the first of five prescribed pills into her mouth.

I sighed. It had been one of those parenting days which require more stamina and fortitude than most. Although it was true that the doctor mentioned orneriness as a possible side effect of the medicine he prescribed for my daughter’s stubborn congestion and ear infection, he also indicated that the opposite was an equally viable option-- but that prospect apparently fell on clogged ears. My daughter was embracing ornery.

Following the office visit and the requisite trip to the drug store, I drove the Ornery One to a distant neighborhood in search of a favorite security item that had evidently slipped from her clutches during an outing the previous evening. I maneuvered the van through the neighborhood at single-digit speeds, scanning the pavement for the tell tale flash of sleek blue that would identify the wayward widget. When car surveillance proved fruitless, I launched a ground-level search that quickly paid off when my daughter’s hand dove across a patch of lawn, her eyes sparking as she reinstated the recovered relic back into her firm grasp.

Things looking up, I decided to take my daughter to local eatery for lunch. The restaurant was still dotted with holiday-themed advertisements, suggesting their goods as viable gift options for service providers and civil servants.

I braced myself as I noticed my daughter staring a bit too long at one of the placards. Something was coming.

“Mailmen!” my daughter scoffed. “Who would buy a gift card for their mailman?”

I cringed, my eyes darting toward the pair of uniformed postal workers enjoying lunch mere feet from our table.

“Shh..” I hissed, shooting a stern gaze toward the oblivious child.

“Who really gives presents to the mailman,” my daughter continued, no doubt recalling any number of unfortunate encounters with our unusually stern postman. It was clear that she was gearing up for a full-scale reproof against goodwill toward mailmen when she caught my eye. We headed home without further incident, my daughter casting nervous glances at the mail truck that trailed us out of the parking lot.

At home, we narrowly averted skinned knees when my daughter tripped and fell on the sidewalk. By the time her brother came home from school, ornery took a sharp turn toward feisty, and by the time dinner was over, we were at full-blown hyper—another option on the medicinal side-effect smorgasbord. The commotion that ensued when my daughter threatened to stuff her brother into a large burlap bag was so great as to rouse my husband from his laptop--where among other things, he was viewing an online tutorial on time travel—long enough to ask: “Has it been like this all day?”

You and I both know the answer to that question, but you might be surprised to find out that I’m not as distressed by the fact as you might think.

I’ll be the first to admit that parenting can be a bumpy ride, but I’m also aware that it’s a shockingly brief one. I often find myself mourning the passing of various phases of my kids’ development. Likewise, I derive a certain amount of joy when, occasionally, an aspect of childhood I thought forever gone makes an unexpected encore—like the time my son presented me with what he confidently stated was his last fallen baby tooth, only to turn around a month later with the news that two more of his teeth had gone wiggly. Even though I’d bagged, labeled, and wept over the final fallen incisor and eulogized my role as the Tooth Fairy in my journal--going so far as to write the kid a sappy letter and to leave him a parting payoff five times his normal cut for my farewell performance-- I was nothing short of elated by the opportunity to get into character and do it all again.

And as for my daughter? I’m not altogether sure that my husband didn’t conduct his online time travel experiment because even though her lost security item was a cell phone and her ear infection just might turn out to be mono doesn’t change the fact that parenting her today felt an awful lot like it did when she was 4…thirteen years ago.

Note to readers: I am grateful to have not only my daughter’s permission, but also her encouragement in posting this piece—to put it in her words “It was great humor, why waste it?” Thanks, Allison, for being a good sport—I hope you are better soon, but if not, we’ll go back to the doctor and see what fun medicine we get next!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Long and Short of It

“We can take it another step in that direction,” my stylist said cautiously.

I’d just outlined a fairly ambitious plan to excise all evidence of what’s simply referenced around here as The Incident. “I’m prepared to take it all the way up to the chin,” I offered.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “there’s just not quite enough to work with yet.” She picked up her scissors and began taking conservative little snips in strategic places while she outlined a plan that sounded an awful lot like those multi-stage reconstructive surgeries one sees disfigured accident victims undergo on Lifetime or The Learning Channel.

“It’s growing quite quickly,” my stylist said encouragingly. She tugged on my top most layers. “All this used to be here,” she said, pointing to an area several inches above my ears.

The fact that I’ve retained my ability to grow hair really is good news, considering that my last visit to this salon ended badly at the scissors of a Substitute Stylist days before my milestone birthday, forcing me to confess to my sister my belief that all those short, compact, helmet-like hair-dos sported by mature women were the result of a single haircut gone wrong. “Then it just stops growing,” I sobbed. “They never recover.”

“Who told you that?” my sister demanded.

My husband did, actually. He’s been telling me this since my mid-twenties, every time I go to the hair salon.

“Don’t let them take too much off,” he says gravely. “Hair stops growing as you get older. Don’t forget.”

“Ulterior motives,” my sister scoffed. “The man likes long hair. That’s all he knows.”

Recalling my bicep-length tresses, I dissolved into a fresh round of despair.

“We’ll work with it,” my sister said, her voice evaporating into a shaky warble as she examined the carnage.

I flipped the hood of my sweatshirt over the jagged, ill-shaped tufts. “I just wanted to be pretty on my birthday,” I sobbed.

I knew it was bad, but little did I know the horror my sister was enduring, as I was blissfully unaware of the surprise party the family was planning two days hence. I was thinking I didn’t want to look bad in a few commemorative snapshots; she knew a limelight appearance before friends and extended family in my present state could result in years of therapy. Although it thankfully didn’t slip in the heat of turmoil, later the word “mullet” would be uttered.

Knowing the full ramifications of my shorn state, my sister didn’t mess around. Pictures were pulled from archives; the Real Stylist was summoned from a color job to perform some “blending” with a razor; products were purchased. At home, my sister demonstrated all manner of blow drying techniques, quoting liberally from James, the expensive stylist she employed before the economy went south.

Somewhere between the mousse and a product labeled “pomade,” a sassy style emerged. My sister wrote the whole episode off as a blessing in disguise, and even hinted that I might want to keep the new look.

While I admit to having a little fun with the new style, I found all the washing, blowing, lifting, and shaping to be rather daunting, and about two weeks ago, I discovered that it no longer rendered the same results, anyway, so I figured an appointment with the Real Stylist was my ticket back to a shorter version of my Regular Hair.

My prognosis looks good for a chin-length regular look in about two months, although we can take another “baby step” toward it in about four weeks. Until then, I’ve got a layered two-tiered style that’s just going to have to suffice.

Oh, and the original haircut that I went in for back in November? That’s a good 5 months down the road.

In light of all that’s transpired, my daughter thinks perhaps it’s best if we all guard against general deterioration by growing out some good, solid hair and storing it up for the future—a good foot or so of fresh growth should do, on top of what we want to keep attached.

I don’t know what kind of a plan I’d be looking at to get there, but I think for now I’m just happy I didn’t have to show up at my party in a mullet, and from here it seems unlikely that I’ll be showing up next year in a helmet.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On and Off the Radar


Do you hear that faint, electronic beat? Beep…there it is again. Readers, I think cyberspace radar has just detected a faint pulse from this stone cold forum.

We were coding here, folks. We’re two weeks into a postless January on the heels of a blog-free December and I’m frankly speechless. Part of me wants to blame my oft-mentioned milestone birthday, as I’m told time hightails it toward the fast track right alongside fleeing youth. Although time has passed rather quickly, I refuse to lean on the shopworn“time flies” bit, especially as clich├ęs are avoided as a matter of policy here at RunningWithLetters.

The truth is I’ve been wantonly going on and off the radar in an alarming number of arenas, and there’s no telling when it will end. In late November—just prior to going dark on the blog—I disappeared from the academic scene to revel in pumpkin cheesecake, pots of coffee, and a houseful of general family fun. I skipped classes and shimmied around deadlines, effectively extending my Thanksgiving break into a full ten day binge of frivolity.

Turns out ten days is a long time to go rogue at the tail end of a masters-level semester. Even as my sister’s hand was still waving sadly out the window of her departing car, I began what turned out to be a non-stop, two week program of educational penance.

Grades safely secured—all A’s and a P, thank you very much—I was stunned to find myself catapulting toward mid-December thoroughly ill-prepared for the season. At that point, the only radar detecting any activity from me was operated by elves in the North Pole as I swiftly switched into an all-Yuletide, all the time format.

Oh—and that treadmill routine I was so jazzed about? I fell off the radar there, too, as soon as we got a wii fit (actually, we had 2 of them at one point, but that’s a long, sad, O’Henry-esque story for another post). See, the wii fit virtual trainers get really upset if you go missing from their program, and they’ve kept my Daytimer pretty full of late, requiring all manner of balance maneuvers, poses, and feats of strength. Over the past three weeks, I’ve logged an impressive track record of physical fitness. But alas, I’m hearing something that signals an impending fade off the fitness radar, too.

Did you hear that?

It’s still a bit faint, but it’s the unmistakable toll of the school bell.


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